Just a mile to the east of Bethlehem lies the village of Beit Sahour, which is where you will find the Shepherds’ Fields, one of the most sacred places to Christians. Many historians believe this is the location where the Angel of the Lord visited the shepherds to tell them of Jesus’ birth.
According to the Bible, the shepherds were tending their sheep at night in a large field in Beit Sahour when an angel appeared before them and said, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
In what is believed to be the same sacred ground as this angel encounter now sits a red-domed Greek Orthodox church at a site known as Church of the Shepherds. This site is also believed to be the site where Jacob settled after his wife, Rachel, died, as told in the Old Testament.
A new church was built in 1953 near the traditional site of the underground Church of the Shepherds. While excavating the foundations for the new church, ruins of three different churches from the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries were discovered. Archaeologists also found an oil press, grottoes and burial niches within a vault.
In addition, a Byzantine monastery was identified, as well as a bakery, cisterns for storing water and small courtyards. To preserve these ancient remains, it was decided to build the new church adjacent to the cave rather than directly above.
Excavations at the site also uncovered a series of caves with remains dating back to a mosaic-floored, fourth century, subterranean church said to have been built by St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. The caves can be accessed by visitors down a flight of 21 steps where ancient mosaics and murals can be viewed. The mosaic floor includes crosses and, therefore, must predate 427, when this was forbidden as it was considered irreverent.
The new church architecture is dodecagonal (12 sides) in shape, reminiscent of the nomadic tents of the shepherds. It also is known for its amazing acoustics inside. Often, visitors will be treated to a small group singing hymns.
The structure also boasts three holy altars, which are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the great martyr and healer Saint Panteleimon and archangels Michael and Gabriel. In Latin, the angels’ tidings of great joy appears in large gold lettering around the circumference of the dome.
The entrance is free, and the chapel is open daily. For more information, visit www.seetheholyland.net.